Public guardians available in Clallam

In 2007 the Washington state Legislature created a new arm in state government, the state Office of Public Guardianship, which is beginning to extend its reach into Clallam County.

Legislators mandated the new office to create a pilot project making publicly-funded guardians available for low-income individuals who are incapacitated or unable to adequately provide for themselves. The law-making body awarded $1.48 million for the projects and the agency selected Clallam County as one of the five start-up pilot projects.

Guardians are assigned by the court system, however people who can’t afford to hire one or don’t have a family member able to volunteer can fall through the cracks.

As of June 23, Clallam County has two guardians available through the program, Mindy Blanchard, of Bridge Builders in Sequim, and Bonnie Hurd, of Concerned Citizens in Forks.

“We’re excited to be able to be part of this necessary service,” Blanchard said. “We’re hoping this can showcase what guardianship can do for people, connecting them with resources and helping them gain a handle on their lives and hopefully achieve independence.”

Guardians act as a surrogate decision-maker to make personal and financial decisions for a person the court has determined to be at significant risk of personal or financial harm because of an inability to care for their own nutrition, health, physical safety or financial affairs.

“When the court decides a person is unable to make these decisions, like if someone has suffered from a head trauma or a developmental disability, then the guardian can be either put into place in a limited fashion or as the primary decision-maker,” said Shirley Bondon, with the state agency. “There is a certification process for the guardians and they are monitored as well.”

Blanchard said the process starts with a petition to the court from someone who is concerned with the well-being of another who is possibly unable to deal with everyday life. Attorneys from the Northwest Justice Project or the Clallam County Pro Bono Lawyers will coordinate the process for those to be publicly funded.

“It can be a challenge because people are often unwilling to give up some of their rights to make decisions or their independence, possibly feeling this is a bad situation,” Blanchard said. “But having someone help you get through a stressful time or through a financial crisis can ultimately reach an end point where a guardian is not needed any longer and the person has greater overall stability, plus not all decision-making rights are given away, just those the court feels the person is unable to handle.”

The guardians are reviewed every month and their decision-making status can be limited or increased based on the situation.

The pilot project representatives are likely to report to the new agency through 2011, at which time Bondon said the program could become a standard statewide if successful.

“We are setting up our project based on the successful segments of other states’ public guardianship policies and we and the Washington Institute of Public Policy will conduct a study to evaluate the service, its benefits, the costs and demonstrated savings,” she said.

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